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Faster than fairies, faster than witches

16 August 2013

Bernard Palmer on Kilvert as a witness to the new age of steam

Kilvert's World of Wonders: Growing up in mid-Victorian England
John Toman
The Lutterworth Press £25

 OF BOOKS about Francis Kilvert and his famous diary there is seemingly to be no end. John Toman, with two books on the diarist already to his credit, has now made it a trilogy with a new volume that reveals the extent to which Kilvert was stirred by the rapid changes in science and technology transforming the face of mid-Victorian Britain. Toman shows how incomparable a source is the diary in providing an account of tradition and change, inertia and progress. He depicts a rural society at last beginning to give way to modernity.

During Kilvert's early childhood, the railway mania was at its height, and he was himself to become an enthusiastic traveller by rail. In an 1874 diary entry, he recalls an anecdote concerning the first train to travel to Birmingham along a particular route. A bull took exception to it and came roaring down the line at full charge to attack this apparent rival. The train went on its way regardless and sent the bull flying. Progress had won - to Kilvert's immense satisfaction.

The diarist was a man of ideas, and Toman puts many of these on the map for the reader to follow - showing, for instance, how Kilvert coped with the theory of evolution as it swept through Victorian Christian circles. 

He took an intense interest in mesmerism, folklore, and the supernatural. The diary narrates frequent supernatural incidents -and notes Kilvert's own belief in the existence of angels. In the entry for 28 April 1870, he recalls hearing "a great, sudden flap of an unseen wing. Angels were going about the hill in the evening light." The entry's matter-of-fact tone, in Toman's view, suggests that Kilvert was not indulging in a mere flight of fancy.

Many readers of the diary will recall his encounter with "Irish Mary" during a railway trip to Liverpool in 1872. Toman suggests that Mary was controlling him by mesmeric power. "Our eyes met again and again. My eyes were fixed and riveted on hers. A few minutes more and I know not what would have happened." Kilvert was only too aware, Toman says, that he and the girl were communicating at a level that made "respectability" meaningless, because "there was an attractive power about this poor Irish girl that fascinated me strangely."

We don't know whether Kilvert, as a young undergraduate, was present at the famous Oxford debate in June 1860 between Bishop "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, Darwin's close friend and supporter, at which Huxley was reported to have said: "I would rather be descended from an ape than from a bishop." But, in the course of his life, the diarist gradually adjusted himself to the theory of evolution, and achieved some sort of reconciliation between science and faith.

Toman will have put all devotees of Francis Kilvert in his debt with this masterly conclusion to his trilogy - and not least the members of the Kilvert Society, whose president is none other than the Church Times'own Ronald Blythe. 

Dr Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times.

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